Greenhorn Sailor
John Jea, African American Preacher and Sailor

Oral History

On the Water - Life at Sea - Jea

Image of John Jea: Reproduced from The journal of a voyage from Charlestown, S.C., to London undertaken during the American Revolution by a daughter of an eminent American loyalist (John Jea) in the year 1778 and written from memory only in 1779. Baker Business Historical Collections, Harvard Univerisity, E278.A2 A29.

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Historical Context

Trying to piece together a sense of what life was like for a particular group of people in any given era takes historical thinking skills. Examining multiple sources gives historians a clearer idea of how people lived in the past. Using artifacts and documents together can help determine who may have owned an object, or a person’s role and location during an important event.


These questions are based on the accompanying primary sources. They are designed to help you practice working with historical documents. Some of these documents have been edited, but all are authentic. As you analyze the documents, take into account the source of each document and any point of view that may be presented in the document.

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  1. According to John Jea’s first-person account and at least one supporting primary source how was he treated by the other sailors? Do you think he was an experienced seaman? Cite your evidence.
  2. Based on careful examination of the sea chest and review of John Jea’s first-person account, do you think John Jea brought a sea chest like this along on this journey? What evidence supports your conclusion?
  3. According to John Jea’s first-person account and careful examination of the illustration, describe where on the ship the two men were when they were killed.

Supporting Primary Sources

Sea Chest

A sailor’s sea chest held personal items and clothing for entire voyages. It was his store, library, bank, and link to home. A heart with the name “Jan Smart” is carved inside the lid.

Loss of the American ship Hercules, Captain Benjamin Stout, on the Coast of Caffraria, June 16th, 1796

From James Lindridge (ed.), Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea. Being a Collection of Faithful Narratives of Shipwrecks, Mutinies, Fires, Famines, and Disasters, incidental to a Sea Life; Together with Celebrated Voyages, Amusing Tales, Tough Yarns and Interesting Anecdotes... (London: William Mark Clark, 1846)

Engraving by William Hogarth

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

...Turn’d away and Sent to Sea, 1747

In this 18th-century print, a young man is shown the brutality of seafaring by three unsavory sailors. While one rows, another taunts him with the lash, used for discipline on ships. The third points to the body of a pirate hanging from the gallows. His mother weeps, perhaps at the prospect of losing her son to the sea.

Additional Primary & Secondary Sources



  • Yards (Yardarms)—Long tapering spars slung to a mast to support and spread the head of a square sail, lugsail, or lateen
  • Apprentice/’prentice—1 a: one bound by indenture to serve another for a prescribed period with a view to learning an art or trade; b: one who is learning by practical experience under skilled workers a trade, art, or calling; 2: an inexperienced person